Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth argues with protesters during a demonstration in Jerusalem, March 31, 2024. Dozens of protesters from the Brothers in Arms movement staged a demonstration inside Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, calling for the community to be drafted to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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Israel’s Two Big Lies

Israel’s internal political debates are so heated in part because they are grounded in bullshit

Liel Leibovitz
July 02, 2024
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth argues with protesters during a demonstration in Jerusalem, March 31, 2024. Dozens of protesters from the Brothers in Arms movement staged a demonstration inside Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, calling for the community to be drafted to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On the day of his arrest, February 12, 1974, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn released a short statement that has since become a manifesto for individuals—and societies—in times of upheaval. It’s long, though worth reading in its entirety, but it comes down to four crystalline words: Live not by lies.

It’s time Israelis took Solzhenitsyn’s advice to heart. Because tragically, now that it could least afford mendacity, Israel is being spun off course by two enormous lies, one destabilizing the nation domestically and the other corrupting its ability to effectively defend itself.

Let’s first look inward, to the most explosive political issue threatening to derail the Israeli government mid-war: namely, the conscription of roughly 63,000 young Haredi men to the Israel Defense Forces. The question of whether or not Israel should recognize—and fund—the right of yeshiva students to pursue their Torah studies rather than join the army has been a political hot potato since at least the 1970s, with various administrations attempting to reach some legislative compromise that would keep both sides content. You would hardly know, listening to the hyperventilation in the Israeli media, that there are already 6,000 Haredi men serving in the army, that hundreds of them are combat soldiers, and that they volunteer in such solid and consistent numbers that the IDF saw fit, in 1999, to establish an independent battalion just for Haredi soldiers, called Netzah Yehuda.

But these slow and steady attempts at resolving a truly complex and sensitive problem left Israel’s Supreme Court unmoved. Last month, its nine justices ruled—unanimously—that the state had no right to issue exemptions, overturning 75 years of deliberation by elected officials in one fell swoop. “This difficult situation,” opined the court’s interim president, Uzi Vogelman, “is rendered sharper by Israel’s ongoing war, which impacts the needs the army must meet to accomplish its essential tasks. … These days, in the middle of a difficult war, this burden of inequality is heavier than ever and mandates a sustainable solution.”

Anyone who is asking how come Haredis don’t serve in the army should first ask how come the army widely rejected those Haredis who actually showed up.

Justice Vogelman’s opinion clearly and succinctly captured the arguments many Israelis have been making since they took to the streets last January to protest Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Why should a soldier’s mom lose sleep, knowing that her boy is risking his life defending Israel’s borders, while her Haredi cousin enjoys the comfort of having her boy close to home, safe and sound in the Beit Midrash? This narrative of gaping inequality grew even more urgent after Oct. 7, with the government’s critics insisting that the army would never win the war unless it was permitted to draft all the eligible men it so desperately needed.

It all makes perfect sense, and it remains an argument that sways many Israelis across the political spectrum. It’s also, alas, a lie.

We’ve an unlikely whistleblower to thank for bringing the truth to light: Haim Ramon, a longtime Labor Party politician who served as a minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet and led the Histadrut, the country’s all-powerful labor union. Last month, Ramon happened to browse a document released by the Knesset’s research and information center that provided statistics about various population groups and their representation in the IDF. One stat in particular left Ramon feeling dazed: Since Oct. 7, the Knesset revealed, 4,000 young Haredi men showed up of their own volition and asked to volunteer to fight, an initiative that would’ve doubled the number of Haredi soldiers overnight and proven a potential way out of the political impasse.

Here’s what happened next: Almost immediately, the IDF deemed 3,120 of these men unfitting to serve, mostly for being too physically weak to fight. Which, if you know anything about the IDF, is a shocking revelation. A non-Haredi Israeli would have to suffer from a truly debilitating health condition to be found unfit for service; otherwise, 18-year-olds struggling with all manner of maladies—asthma, say, or a bad back or a minor heart condition—are happily recruited and assigned to support positions that do not require strenuous physical exertion. You can find these excellent and motivated men and women serving as intelligence officers or riflery instructors, drivers or parachute packers, performing services the army absolutely needs. And you’d think that with the national interest allegedly being the swift swelling of the IDF’s ranks, the army would’ve made an effort to accommodate these enthusiastic young Haredis in its ranks.

Instead, not only were they rejected, but also, of the 880 volunteers who were found fit, only 540, or 61 percent, were recruited. In total, then, of the throngs of proud and patriotic black-hatted Israelis who, when it mattered most, wished to join their brothers and sisters in fighting, the army accepted a mere 13.5 percent.

This heartbreaking account provides us with two urgent insights.

First, the entire debate about Haredis in the army is predicated on a bright, shiny untruth. The army doesn’t need Haredi recruits to meet its goals. If it did, it would’ve welcomed every one, or at least the ones physically fit to fight. The army further understands that fully integrating Haredim into its ranks would require a wide array of logistical challenges—providing strictly kosher food, for example, or addressing concerns rising from coed military service—it currently cannot and does not want to address.

Second, while liberal Israeli politicians are quick to refer to Haredis in derogatory terms like shirkers and parasites, the Haredi community has just shown that it is more committed than ever to seeing itself as part of Israel’s national narrative. If you’re looking for a bit of perspective there, a 2023 report from the State Comptroller’s office revealed that, in 2021, a whopping 32 percent of young military-age Tel Avivis chose not to join the IDF, a fact that generated precisely zero national outcry.

Here, then, is the truth: Haredi conscription is a complex problem, with excellent arguments on both sides. It’s also a problem that can be resolved with a few strategic decisions and a lot of goodwill. But it’s as good of a wedge issue as it gets in Israel, which is why the court, seizing on its decades-long self-generated mandate of being the ultimate arbiter in all things, saw the need to rush in and upset the status quo based on the flimsiest legal argument imaginable. Israelis and anyone who cares about them should reject this attempt with scorn. Put bluntly, anyone who is asking why Haredis don’t serve in the army should first ask why the army widely rejected those Haredis who showed up.

Israel is still failing to understand precisely which war it is fighting and how it must fight if it has any chance of winning.

But while the lie being told about the Haredis can only do political damage, the lie being told about Israel’s conduct in the war against Hamas has graver, existential implications.

Last week, Amit Segal, one of Israel’s finest journalists, revealed that the military prosecutor’s office has instructed the IDF not to target Gazan civilians who actively participated in the Oct. 7 massacre, including those who reportedly kidnapped the Bibas babies and their parents. The IDF’s legal eagles, members of the country’s caste of empowered jurists, argued that because the international laws of warfare permit targeting only individuals who belong to a fighting force, the thousands of Palestinians who reportedly executed, raped, and kidnapped Israelis but do not officially belong to Hamas or Islamic Jihad are considered civilians and are therefore out of bounds.

“This direction was given even though, after October 7, the government promised that Israel will hold accountable anyone who participated in the massacre,” Segal said on Channel 12 News. “Despite this fact, if the IDF or the Shin Bet learn of the location of Gazan individuals who murdered, pillaged, raped, or kidnapped Israelis, there will be no legal authorization to target them.”

Israelis barely had a moment to digest this absurdity when a second one hit even harder: Earlier this week, Israel released 50 Palestinian terrorists, including Muhammad Abu Salmiya, the director general of Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital. At the time of his arrest, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit released a statement saying that it had concrete evidence that Abu Salmiya assisted the terror group in using hospital resources to maintain a vast network of tunnels underneath Al-Shifa and to use the hospital as its headquarters. It’s unclear why Israel would release Abu Salmiya, especially as Hamas continues to flaunt basic humanitarian codes of conduct and refuses to allow the Red Cross access to the civilian hostages it still holds.

The decision to release Abu Salmiya unconditionally is, alas, a perfect embodiment of the second big lie Israeli elites tell their charges: namely that they’re doing everything they can to win this war. Because while a democratic and law-abiding nation is beholden to a host of rules even—or especially—when fighting a war, it also has a duty to assure its own survival and the well-being of its citizens.

To argue that the Bibas’ kidnappers deserve a pass because their particular group, the grimly named Lords of the Wilderness, was not considered a terror organization at war with Israel prior to Oct. 7 is a bit of maddening sophistry. To allow such intellectual self-pleasuring to dictate military strategies when a five-year-old and a one-year-old are held captive is nothing short of national suicide. Ditto for releasing terrorist masterminds mid-war with no conditions and no returns.

Again, truth must be told: Even under the strict ethical constraints it rightly imposed on itself while fighting a genocidal enemy hell-bent on its destruction, Israel is still failing to understand precisely which war it is fighting and how it must fight if it has any chance of winning. What we’re seeing in Gaza and, increasingly, on the Lebanese border, isn’t merely the latest skirmish in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it’s the first battle of the Israeli-Iranian war, one likely to last years, if not decades, and have significant, even existential, outcomes.

And while Israel has registered some undeniably impressive tactical achievements since October, its leaders seem remarkably confused, if not outright dishonest, about the long-term strategic shifts this realization requires. The idea that the United States, for example, is Israel’s ally despite the Biden administration’s adherence to Obama’s disastrous and Tehran-centric realignment policy; the idea that one can achieve anything of any worth by negotiating with Hamas; the idea that Israel must refrain from seizing and holding on to territories it clearly needs to maintain the safety and security of its citizens; the idea that the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from their homes due to terrorism is a painful but ultimately acceptable price to pay—these are all lies. All must be abandoned and replaced, posthaste, with a renewed commitment to the reality of the region, one in which we win nothing and lose everything by futzing around with preening, one-sided humanitarian gestures.

It’s not too hard to see why these lies have become commonplace. Israel’s liberal elites have an interest in lying about the Haredis because there’s no surer way to bring down the government they so revile and to take back the power they failed to win at the ballot box. And Netanyahu’s government has an interest in lying about the conduct of the war because there’s no surer way to hold on to power in the face of mounting evidence that Israel has never been weaker, less strong-willed, and less secure. And most Israelis, too, find these lies comforting, burdened as they are with enough trauma and fear.

“We lie to ourselves to preserve our peace of mind,” Solzhenitsyn observed at the conclusion of his warning. “If we are too frightened, then we should stop complaining that we are being suffocated. We are doing this to ourselves.”

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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